March 26, 2007

RFID Tag A Tree?

RFID can be used for many more applications than might seem evident. Subni RFID Webservice is a social networking website that encourages people to tag objects and map metadata to this site's database. For example, if you tag a tree, I presume that you can share information such as latitude/ longitude, type, age, city, country, date of tagging condition of tree, etc.

I say "presume" because while you have to register to use the service, they tell you after you waste time filling out the form that they're not taking new members. (They also don't bother setting up the form for anyone outside the U.S.) However, their applications page diagrams what look like very interesting applications - with no text whatsoever to describe them, unfortunately.

Basically, at the time of this writing, this site is a tease, hinting at what could be. Very frustrating but also exciting. For example, they describe a Subni application called Soundtag, which converts information from an RFID tag on a prescription bottle to sound. This would help visually impaired people know that they have the right medication. This is a brilliant idea, and while other companies might be doing something similar, I haven't come across it elsewhere.

Other applications that they describe on the site suggest tagging physical objects. This has the potential for some powerful municipal applications.

For example, amongst the client computing projects that I've worked on, one of the more interesting ones was a forestry-style application for a municipal tree database. For the sample database, I drove around wooded areas and photographed a few clusters of trees. Theoretically, I would have attached some identifying badge to each tree, then recorded approximate geographic coordinates. This information from the field would have been synced up with a central database later, when I "got back from the field."

Now imagine if there was an easier way to manage such a database, and make it central. So put it online, and use durable RFID forestry tags. Provided handheld readers have a wireles connection to the Internet, field agents could update a database - private or public - in real-time. Add environmental sensors and a memory device like the i-Disk RFID flash drive, and environmental conditions could be stored for later analysis.

In fact, any municipal assets such as park benches and bus shelters, could be tagged in this manner. What might also help is a means for citizens to report problems with an asset. At present, if a tree goes down, a bus shelter is smashed, etc., a citizen makes a call and gives the nearest intersection.

In the future, they might be able to use their NFC-enabled cell phone (dual-mode Wi-Fi/ cellular) to call in the information using a VoIP application over a municipal Wi-Fi network. The VoIP client could file-share the data from the asset's RFID tag, minimizing what a citizen has to do. And if tags had IP addresses, like RuBee tags do, the information could be accessed remotely, saving municipalites the cost of gasoline, wear and tear on city vehicles, and the scheduling of personnel - except when needed.

January 01, 2007

New Diet Courtesy Of Your RFID-Enabled Fridge?

This sort of thing has been tried with different technologies in the past, but now Samsung has a refrigerator that uses RFID to tell you when certain foods are running low. [All Headline News via RFID News] Of course, to facilitate this, all of your food would have to have item-level tags. (Though there are a few produce suppliers who are experimenting with food grade RFID tags.)

Now here's where the really interesting stuff comes in: connecting a refrigerator to a cell phone. So, if both your phone and fridge have a wireless technology such as Bluetooth, the fridge could transfer information to your handset. In fact, if you had the right application, the whole setup could create a shopping list for you. My feeling is that we'll see more of these types of solutions. Though whether they are a good thing for humanity or will just make us more lazy has yet to be seen. Just make sure you pay your cell phone bill, or you may you go hungry.

November 25, 2006

RFID Roundup - Sat Nov 25/06

RFID Mirrors
A new mirror from Paxar for the retail clothing industry uses RFID technology to help customers learn more about a particular item of clothing, including garment descriptions and suggestions for matching items and accessories. Touching the mirror will also signal sales staff that a customer needs assistance. [via The Retail Bulletin]

RFID + Parking
"Meter maids" are getting help with the out of control parking situation in South Korea thanks to RFID tags on every car. Handheld readers would scan car tags to determine if a particular car is allowed in the city on a given day, and a fine issued if not. [via PSFK]

Managing RFID Adoption
Line56 has a three-page article outlining how to break RFID adoption into five stages, to more easily understand what your returns might be, as well as how process workflow might be impacted. The five stages they discuss are Creep, Crawl, Walk, Run, and Sprint - the latter of which includes actual implementation. I've only scanned the article but it does appear to have some generalized value for a manager researching how to go about RFID implentation for their company.

November 18, 2006

Marks & Spencer Clothing Stores To Rollout RFID

One of my biggest beefs with large department stores is that there is so much variety of style and size that I often can't find what I need. Marks & Spencer is one clothing retailer that is trying to solve this and other inventory management problems through RFID.

Based on a successful trial, M & S plans to triple the number of their stores, up to 120, that will use RFID item-level tags on merchandise. Their target period is spring 2007. During the trial period, the retailer doubled the number of their tagged items to nearly 50Mln over the summer and fall seasons. This necessitated item tagging by 15 suppliers in 20 countries. The current trial involves items from six clothing departments, which will be expanded to thirteen by fall of 2007. Said James Stafford, head of clothing RFID,

Stock accuracy has improved and stores and customers have commented on the more consistent availability of sizes in the pilot departments.

This highlights one of the benefits of item-level RFID tagging in retail: more efficient control of out-of-stock items. Better inventory management, of course, leads to satisfied customers who can actually find what they're looking for, in their size, and thus greater profits.

[sources: Computer Weekly, VNUNet]

October 11, 2006

Tagging Books With RFID

Libraries are already tagging books and other inventory with RFID, so it's not surprising that some large bookstores, such as the Dutch BGN [via Silicon] chain, are also chipping books. The book applications of RFID are essentially the same with in both environments, with the exception that one is selling the inventory. But when big book chains first started up and the trend caught on, they slashed the profit margins to themselves, publishers and authors. Obviously, this is an application where item-level tagging is essential.

Given the cost of item-level tags compared to case- and pallet-level, you'd think bookstores would be reluctant to reduce their margins even further. On the other hand, since using RFID means reducing the chances that a book doesn't get sold because it was mis-shelved, the ROI (return on investment) may be worth the 14-month wait they are expecting. While BGN is claiming that it's easier to track out of stock and popular books, it's really nothing that barcodes cannot do. However, one great advantage of item-level RFID is that inventory can be done without shutting up shop and having the entire staff document everything. And that kind of ROI is very measurable.

September 19, 2006

Volkswagen + Jaguar Using RFID

Apparently Volkswagen doesn't seem to have the financial problems that some American auto makers are having. In fact, Volkswagen is doing so well that they have a theme park which has up to 700 visitors daily. But instead of going on rides, visitors come for their ride, to pick up their car. They do this to save on the delivery charge for their vehicle. This quantity of visitors at the theme park (supposedly the second-most popular in Germany) has to organize the visits so that people get their cars in good time. So they use RFID to manage the process. RFID Weblog summarizes the process.

Jaguar cars are also tracked with RFID in a different manner. Unipart and Savi Networks will jointly be monitoring Jaguar car parts in cargo containers using Savi's information service. The service uses a combination of "bar codes, sensors, passive and active RFID, and GPS." [via Auto Industry UK] Savi, which was acquired by Lockheed Martin, has a hardy container tag which might be suitable for this task. Several other companies are using Savi's tech to monitor cargo.

  By the way, here are 5 other uses of RFID in automotive and related sectors.

September 08, 2006

Healthcare: Taiwan's Textiles Are RFID-Enhanced

The Taiwanese textile industry is experimenting with technologies and using RFID and solar panels in clothing. Part of the purpose of this hybrid technology is to enable sensors in the clothing to monitor measures such as heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature. RFID technology transmits this information back to a hospital computer system, although it's not clear whether a wearer needs to enter a hospital or visits some sort of data reader kiosk.The Taiwain Textile Research Institute has also managed to embed small, flexible solar panels into a leather jacket. The panels apparently generate enough energy to run a digtal music player. [via InfoWorld]

This is not the first time that RFID has been inserted into clothing, with one purpose being to prevent child abductions. Other purposes of RFID with clothing are for retail security tags and to retain item details.

August 31, 2006

More RFID Woes: Wal-Mart Sued For Alleged Patent Violation

Wal-Mart is being sued for supposedly violating an RFID-based inventory control patent filed in 2002 by a company called RFID World. Also named in the suit are Gillette (now owned by Procter & Gamble), Michelin, Home Depot, Target, and Pfizer). Visit RFID Journal for more details of the suit.

Wal-Mart and Target are probably two of the largest retailers using RFID for inventory control and supply chain management. Conflicting media reports suggest that Wal-Mart has had some difficulties with their RFID rollout and might have scaled back their expectations, but they say they are moving ahead. Some of their suppliers are reluctant to use RFID because they have not perceived a reasonable ROI (return on investment). As a result, some suppliers have lagged behind expected milestones from Wal-Mart, causing the retailer to get heavy-handed and mandate the use of RFID by all suppliers.

While implementing the technology is often perceived as being expensive, one small manufacturer managed their initial RFID trial for around US$6,000, with just one employee. Part of the misperception might come from the confusion betweeen item-level tagging and pallet- and case-level tagging - the latter two of which are generally less costly than item-level tagging. However, with a lawsuit in progress, one which suggests that suppliers will also be in violation RFID World's patent if they comply with Wal-Mart's standard, it's possible that there will be more setbacks in Wal-Mart'sRFID rollout.

August 29, 2006

Item-Level RFID Tag Use To Undergo Huge Growth

While item-level RFID tagging has been predicted to be where retailers (and manufacturers) will most benefit from tracking sales of consumer goods, it has not beenwidely implemented because of the cumulative cost of RFID tags, amongst other reasons. However, a study from IDTechEx says that item-level tagging is expected to grow  nearly 100-fold in the next ten years, from about US$0.16B to US$13B. [via MTB Europe; a very thorough article] Compare this to an IDTechEx report from Sep 2005 which predicted sales of US$24.5 B, for all types of RFID tags, by 2015.

Many of the items tagged to date are higher end consumer items - such as the expensive Fusion razor - as well as medical supplies, machine parts, etc. The sheer increase in tag volume expected is what will help grow the industry. It's not hard to predict that the growth from now until 2016 will be exponential, as more companies realize the value to them, in terms of both asset tracking and supply chain management.

The early growth will in turn drive item-level RFID tag prices down, which will then allow less expensive goods and items to be tagged, fueling even further use. There are still issues of radio frequency bands to be worked out, as certain items tagged in some countries would violate bandwidth regulations elsewhere. Each country has a different policy about frequency use, and there is still no single accepted standard worldwide. However, EPCGlobal's EPC (Electronic Product Code) is often considered the defacto standard in the RFID industry. In fact, EPCGlobal's Gen 2 RFID standard was recently accepted by the ISO (International Standards Organisation). This in itself should help propel the use of tags.

Hacking Your Own RFID System To Reduce Risks

Hackers are usually labelled a disruptive lot, but sometimes they are exactly what you need to test a system. Enter the guys from Pure Hacking, professionals who perform what is called ethical hacking - hacking by permission - to test flaws and find potential security problems. While they cover a number of industries, they are focusing expertise in RFID systems, which have been the subject of much media coverage in relation to security issues. [via RFID Journal]

The Pure Hacking team actually uses a structured auditing process for all their tests, RFID-related or otherwise, and even offer an accredited anti-hacking course (non-RFID specific). I'm making an educated guess and saying that a lot of the techniques used to test software is very applicable to RFID systems. An RFID system may be the sum of its parts, but most especially it's the middleware that drives everything. Thus the many system vulnerabilities likely lie in the latter, in terms of allowing access to data. (I'm focusing on in-house issues, not what happens to a tagged item outside of your company. That's another aspect I'll try to discuss later.)

So if you are considering implementing RFID in your organization, it's important that you understand the data access process, even in broad terms. How do you want tag information to be accessed and updated? Do you need to implement layers of authorization for different roles in the company? Do you want a different layer of data available to the companies you supply parts and goods to? Human workflow is just as important as machine workflow. How do you intend for humans and machines to interact in terms of your RFID system? These are the kinds of questions consultants will ask you, before they even consider RFID solutions for implementation.

I know I'm being a bit vague here, but your company needs will vary by industry. I'll try to get into specific case studies in the future. For now, you can write out your intended workflow details, sketch out rough diagrams, and most certainly make a list of any questions that occur. If you can think of your own "penetration testing" test suite items, jot them down as well. There's a lot to consider here, but assessing your workflow ahead of time, before bringing in any consultants, helps you to be prepared with questions to ask. Knowing potential vulnerabilities ahead of time will help ease you through future hiccups.